As yet another ceasefire fails in the DRC, what lies ahead for the Congolese people?

During a visit to the DRC last week, the UN Security Council stated that it “no longer needed to be demonstrated” that Rwanda was backing the M23. The rebel group has continued to make advances in North Kivu as multiple ceasefires mediated by regional mechanisms have failed

March 15, 2023 by Tanupriya Singh
M23 fighters head towards the provincial capital of Goma in the eastern part of the DRC. (Photo: Sylvain Liechti / MONUSCO)

On Sunday, March 12, a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) mission concluded a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to assess the security and humanitarian conditions in the country, as well as the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO.

The visit came amid an ongoing offensive by the M23 rebel group, which has seized parts of the eastern province of North Kivu, bordering Rwanda, following a resurgence of attacks since 2021.

Speaking in the province’s capital city of Goma on Sunday, Nicolas de Rivière, France’s permanent representative to the UN and the co-leader of the UNSC mission along with Gabonese diplomat Michel-Xavier Biang,  said, “The presence of the M23 no longer needs to be demonstrated, it is spreading and it is no longer to be demonstrated either that Rwanda supports the M23… It is also clearly established that there are incursions by the Rwandan army into North Kivu. This too is unacceptable.”

Rwanda has continued to deny that it has backed the rebel group, despite mounting evidence of its role in the M23’s advances—including direct military presence—in Congo’s eastern provinces, where over 800,000 people have been displaced since March 2022.

During the UNSC visit, Rivière stated that the FARDC was mainly responsible for acting against armed groups, while MONUSCO’s role was to “protect civilians.” He added, “don’t expect the United Nations to resolve things magically and instantly at the place of the Congolese authorities.”

The comments from the diplomat followed shortly after French president Emmanuel Macron, who, when reminded of France’s “relevant role” in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in a joint press conference with President Felix Tshisekedi, said, “since 1994, and it’s not France’s fault… you (the Congolese government) have not been able to restore sovereignty…”

“Is it solely the responsibility of the Congolese government to bring about peace and security? I would argue no. If the French government is confirming through its president and its ambassador that Rwanda is supporting rebel groups in the DRC, we should all question why France, through the European Union, lobbied to make sure that Rwanda receives US$ 21 million in military assistance, despite knowing that it is backing rebel groups,” Kambale Musavuli, a leading writer and activist from the Centre for Research on Congo, told Peoples Dispatch.

“The French government cannot come to the DRC and say that you need to take matters into your own hands while diplomatically and militarily supporting Rwanda, which is in turn supporting rebel groups.”

“France is running away from its responsibility towards accountability, which has been the fundamental ask of the Congolese people since the beginning of the war. And, for accountability, we need justice. It is not just the question of the DRC having a strong military and being able to assert sovereignty over its territory. It is also a question of how do we hold the perpetrators of violence accountable? Be it local actors, be it neighboring countries, be it multinational corporations or foreign countries such as the UK , the US, or France.”

Not only has the international community failed to ensure justice, regional maneuvers have so far also been unsuccessful in stopping the M23 offensive.

The Luanda and Nairobi processes: doomed to fail? 

Successive ceasefire announcements under what are known as the Luanda and Nairobi processes, mediated by Angola and Kenya respectively, have failed to materialize. On March 3, Angolan president João Lourenço announced that a ceasefire in the eastern provinces of the DRC was due to take effect on March 7.

However, fighting was reported in parts of North Kivu on March 6 and 7, with civil society groups reporting civilian deaths in Karuba, which lies some 30 kilometers west of Goma, and in the district of Kamuronza, located on Goma city’s outskirts.

The M23 has tried to advance towards Goma, having previously briefly captured the city in 2012.

On March 14, local sources cited by the UN-supported Radio Okapi reported that while the M23 rebels had withdrawn from certain villages in the Masisi and Rutshuru territories, they were still present in the city of Kitshanga, and also in Karuba and Mushaki (about 36 kilometers from Goma).

M23 presence was also reported in the hills around Sake, located 27 kilometers from Goma in Masisi, where fighting between the rebel group and the FARDC had been reported since Friday. On March 11, at least four civilians were reportedly killed following mortar shelling on the town by the M23.

Following what was clearly another unsuccessful ceasefire, Angola announced on Saturday that it would be deploying troops to the DRC, joining Burundi and Kenya, which have had soldiers in the country under the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF). The Angolan parliament will deliberate on the matter on March 17.

However, the mandate of the deployment would not be offensive. Rather, Angolan troops would be responsible for securing areas occupied by the M23, as well as protecting the members of the Ad-Hoc Verification Mechanism under the Luanda process.

Public frustration over the continued advances of the M23 also gave way to protests against MONUSCO and the EACRF in February. Another long standing cause for concern has been that of the Balkanization of the DRC’s eastern provinces.

On March 11, the M23 released a statement reiterating that it had declared a ceasefire on March 7, further calling upon the commander of the EACRF and the commander of the Ad-Hoc Verification Mechanism to take over its positions in Karuba, Muremure, Nyamtima, Nkingo, Kaganao, and three towers in Kihuli.

Following a meeting of defense chiefs in February, countries that have deployed troops to the DRC under the EACRF agreed to set up buffer zones and to divide the areas under their jurisdiction.

“The agenda of Balkanization is to gain control of the mineral wealth in the eastern part of the DRC. Congo has had this experience before. In 1960, the southern province of Katanga was Balkanized. While the face of this process was Congolese, we know from history that it was Union Minière du Haut-Katanga (a Belgian mining company) and the Belgian government who were in control,” Musavuli said.

“What is happening to the DRC today is not unique. Kenya implemented a similar model in Somalia, where they effectively created a buffer zone, what is known as Jubaland, under the pretext of the war on terror, citing terrorist attacks from Al-Shabab.”

“When the same narrative was presented in the DRC, this was a cause for worry. The DRC became a member of the EAC without the consultation of the Congolese people. Now decisions are being made at the level of the EAC of which the Congolese people are not even aware, they do not understand the mechanism of this military force, or how the DRC became a member of the EAC where two members (Rwanda and Uganda), who are the aggressors, are participating in the peace process.”

“The EAC, with its military force, creates a buffer zone around towns controlled by the M23 and then they tell the Congolese government that their military has no sovereignty over this piece of land. Any casual observer can say that the Congo is being balkanized right in front of us. They are trying to Jubalandize the DRC.”

Ensuring peace and accountability 

“The situation with the M23 today is not that different to what happened in 1996, 1998, 2009, or even 2012. If we look at the negotiations in Luanda and Nairobi, there is nothing different in what these countries are doing from what the SADC (the Southern African Development Community) did in 2012. The only major difference is that the SADC forces had a mandate to engage the M23, and they did, and were ultimately able to defeat the rebel group,” Musavuli said.

Musavuli added, “The M23 has the support of the Rwandan military, which in turn has been trained by the UK and the US and has been deployed across the world for western interests—be it in Mozambique, the Central African Republic, or Mali and Haiti in the past.”

“The Nairobi and Luanda processes will fail because they do not take into account a fundamental problem—that there is a member of the African Union (AU), Rwanda, and to some extent the Ugandan government, who for the past two decades have supported rebel groups in the DRC and pilfered its resources.”

Amid these persistent threats, Musavuli stressed that it would remain difficult for any country to ultimately succeed in balkanizing the Congo—“Why? Because of the people of the Congo, the people are attached to the land due to its history. Patrice Lumumba told the Congolese people that the reason that the DRC has to be as big as it is is because it is going to be a powerful force that is going to transform the African continent.”

“So any force, be it African or foreign, organizing itself to carve up the Congo, is actually fighting for the destruction of Africa’s prosperity, is robbing Africans of their destiny and of their future. We should all be clear that these forces are neocolonial agents and are a danger to Pan-Africanism, a danger to African unity, and a danger to the unity of the working class of the world.”